It was the paper toss heard around Messa Rink.
An angry Union hocwey coach Rick Bennett marched into the media room for the postgame press conference after the Dutchmen blew a pair of leads to Colgate, 5-3, on Nov. 8, dropping the Dutchmen’s record to 3-3-2. As he walked to the table to begin the press conference, he saw a score sheet that been placed in the middle of the table.
Bennett didn’t even bother to look at it. He picked it up and tossed it aside to his left. Then, Bennett began to criticize his team’s play, and called out two players in particular, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who took a bad penalty, and forward Kevin Sullivan, who was out with an upper-body injury.
“You want to go on a meter of 10?” Bennett said when asked how angry he was. “It’s above a 10.”
That night proved to be a wake-up call for the Dutchmen. The next night, Union held Cornell to 11 shots on goal and posted a 3-0 win. The Dutchmen have been rolling ever since.
Since Bennett’s outburst, the top-ranked Dutchmen (30-6-4) have gone 27-3-2. It certainly was a major turning point in the season, and started them on the run to the Frozen Four. Union will face Boston College in Thursday’s semifinal at 5 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“The room was pretty quiet,” Dutchmen defenseman Mat Bodie said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of anything going on after the game. Coach came in and had a speech. I think that was when guys rallied around each other. The team concept really came through.”
The Dutchmen took a 2-0 lead in the first period on a pair of Daniel Carr goals. Union seemed to be in control when Gostisbehere was drawn into a roughing penalty by the Raiders’ Darcy Murphy. Although the Raiders didn’t score on the power play, the tone of the game had changed. Colgate had the momentum, and Union was a step behind.
Murphy tied the score late in the first with a short-handed goal. Tylor Spink tied it early in the second period, but Sebastien Gingras regained the lead for Union late in the period.
But the Dutchmen fell apart in the third period. Murphy tied the score 2:04 into the period. With Bodie in the box for tripping, Mike Borkowski scored on a power play at 7:17 to give Colgate the lead. Spink’s empty-net goal with 19 seconds left clinched the win.
“It was one of those frustrating times that, as a coach, it wasn’t good enough,” Bennett said. “We got beat pretty handily, and I just felt the score didn’t indicate how badly we got outplayed. It just wasn’t going to be acceptable. The guys in the locker room knew it.”
After the game, the first question Bennett was asked was about Gostisbehere’s penalty.
“One of our assistant captains decided to take a dumb penalty,” Bennett said. “It changes the whole momentum. I don’t know why [he did it]. Our leadership went from excellent to very average in a span of one week.”
Gostisbehere didn’t take offense to the comments.
“Coach sometimes needs to call us guys out,” Gostisbehere said. “It was a good time for us. We needed that reality check. It turned our season around a little bit.”
Sullivan wasn’t even in the rink for the game. He was back at his apartment trying to recover from his injury. At the time, Sullivan was leading the country with 11 assists.
When asked about Sullivan’s status, Bennett said, “That is a whole another topic. I’ll say this, you want your players to treat their injuries and to come across and do everything you possibly can to get back to help your teammates, and I don’t feel that with Kevin Sullivan right now.”
Like Gostisbehere, Sullivan didn’t let Bennett’s comments bother him.
“I wasn’t that worried about it,” Sullivan said. “He’s a pretty passionate guy. I was unable to watch the game that night, but I know our team could have played better. I’m not worried about it. He’s not worried about it. It’s past us.”
Looking back at it, Bennett has some regrets. But he also subscribes to the theory of not sugarcoating a situation. He will tell players how he feels, whether it’s good or bad.
“You never want to [call out] a player, and you have to look back to when you were a player and you never appreciated it,” Bennett said. “But, sometimes, it is a wake-up call. I know it’s more of a pro-ish thing than a college thing. Obviously, teams will use that against you in recruiting wars.
“I’ve always felt that we, as a coaching staff, ever since we formed our staff, it’s been blatant honesty with every player, from the one-on-one meetings to after games, win or lose. I do feel bad [about] giving it to Shayne and Kevin, but they’ve taken it as men, and they’ve moved on. It will make them better.”
And the players appreciate Bennett’s honesty.
“Sometimes, it might not come in the way you expect or you want it to,” Bodie said. “But you have to take it for what it is and move forward. I think the guys who were called out did a good job of responding. Coach handled himself well talking to those guys, getting them to understand where he is coming from.
“Coach Bennett always wants what’s best for us. Deep down, guys know that.”
The next day, the Dutchmen played a solid game against Cornell. Cole Ikkala, Gostisbehere and Matt Wilkins scored, and goalie Colin Stevens got the shutout.
“It was a business-like approach the next morning,” Bennett said. “We showed the clips. We actually showed a couple of good clips from the Colgate game. Once that film was done, the computer was shut down. I think we deleted that whole tape.”
It was a defining moment for the Dutchmen. They could have tuned their coach out after his comments. Instead, they were inspired to turn their season around.
The Dutchmen have been a machine ever since.
“I guess there’s an old saying in hockey, and I’m not sure about the other sports because I don’t play the other sports, but you can’t fool a hockey player,” Bennett said. “Those guys know how they played, and they know our coaching staff’s feelings. If I went in there and sugarcoated it, those guys would have read through it and we would probably have lost a lot of credibility with them. Through that, I learned to sometimes tone it down a little bit it in those meetings.”